Leaders say the Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline project, which is nearing its 10th anniversary, is the bedrock on which aspects of the region's fire safety and economy are built.
Jo Burke chaired the Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline Project's planning group from 2000 to 2005. She co-ordinated the pipeline's business case and project design, and was its community liaison officer.
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One of the largest water infrastructure projects in Australian history, the project saw 17,500 kilometres of open channels replaced with about 9000 kilometres of piping between 2006 and April 2010.
GWMWater, which built the pipeline, estimates the system, which connects to the properties of 7000 customers from Toolondo to Sea Lake, saves on average 103 billion litres of water a year.
Mrs Burke co-ordinated the pipeline's business case and the project design, after a group aimed at advocating for funding for the study was set up in October 1999. She said one of the difficult parts of the job was that "most people didn't think it would proceed".
"It was such a massive undertaking," she said.
"The Northern Mallee Pipeline had been built in relatively small stages over a number of years, and here we were trying to develop a business case for the whole of the region in one go. Really it hadn't been done anywhere else.
"In developing the business case we had environmental groups, an engineering group, a consultation group working in the region, we had people looking at how much water sheep drink... We needed to know all this before we could do the design and costing, and then start the advocacy for funding."
The project eventually received $688 million as part of a three-way funding agreement between the federal and state governments and farmers' rates money.
Mrs Burke said the millennium drought of 2001-09 shortened construction time from ten years down to five. It also drove home the need for such infrastructure improvements.
"Our water mainly came from Lakes Bellfield and Wartook in the Grampians," she said.
"By the time it was delivered to the northern part of the region, the channels were losing 90 per cent of the water to seepage and evaporation and the water quality was really poor in the channels. I live in Rupanyup, and the water we got through our taps was so bad I couldn't grow tomatoes because of the salinity.
"If you look at how the channels were built, they used the river system as part of the delivery, so environmentally the region was going backwards too."
Mrs Burke said the "main trunk" of the piped system runs from Halls Gap to Taylors Lake and is one metre in diameter.
"From there it divides into four main trunks and they're polypipes that go from half a metre in diameter down and as it gets closer to the farms it's eight centimetres. All the farms in the channel system are connected and water is delivered to 42 towns across Wimmera-Southern Mallee."
Mrs Burke estimated 70 people were working in the project's business unit at the peak of the project, when hundreds of pipe-laying and environmental contract workers. She said its legacy included a range of extensions to the east, northwest and down around the fringe of the Grampians.
"I think there have been a number of irrigation-type projects along the Murrumbidgee River in NSW, where they have piped areas replacing channels since ours was completed," she said.
Former Member for Mallee John Forrest was a staunch advocate for the pipeline, saying it was the whole reason he got into politics in 1993. A civil engineer before he went to Canberra, Mr Forrest earned himself the nickname "Mr Pipeline" among colleagues.
"During my election I was sitting in (former Mail-Times editor) Maurie Lawson's office with my predecessor Peter Fisher, and Maurie asked me 'what's your position on getting the Wimmera-Mallee piped?'," he said.
"And I said I was a great supporter, it's only going to cost $340 million, so it started from day one for me. I can remember the minister for forestry and environment Wilson Tuckey coming to Horsham. We lobbied him and he found 120-odd million dollars for the feasibility case for the Wimmera section, so it was just a constant thing."
"Clause 100 of the constitution was probably the biggest problem for me, because it says the commonwealth shall have no role in water: I couldn't get the federal component of the funding request unless the state government asked for it."
Mr Forrest said the Northern Mallee Pipeline - a 3,650 kilometre pipeline covering an area of 890,000 hectares, completed in 2004 - marked the true beginning of the Wimmera effort.
"The water that used to come into the Mallee - all the way to Ouyen and Manangatang - came from the Grampians. The northern end now comes from the Murray and it's more efficient," he said.
Former chair of the Wimmera Mallee Water Board Lance Netherway, of Quantong, agreed the Northern Mallee Pipeline sowed the seeds for the WMPP's success.
"When stage one of the Northern Mallee got up I remember there was a lot of talking to farmers up north to get support for it," he said.
"The big issue was the loss of their dams, and you can appreciate in northern arid areas with hot summers, the dam was a place of recreation. (It was) people like Manangatang's Brian Barry stood up in front of farmers at public meetings and saying 'this is good and it's just got to happen' that changed opinion."
"So I think piping was accepted as a good thing by the time the Wimmera project kicked off."
Benefits as wide-reaching as the pipes themselves
Wimmera farmers, firefighters and businesses have made progress off the back of the Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline - nearly 10 years since the six-stage mammoth project was completed.
Dale Russell served as operations manager for Country Fire Authority District 17 between 1998 and 2019.
He said he made sure he had a seat at the table early in the planning of the pipeline.
"The Northern Mallee Pipeline had been completed years before, and my colleagues in Kerang and Swan Hill were uneasy with the way they weren't consulted," he said. "There were no access points put in where they could get water from once the channels were filled in. So when I got wind of (the Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline Project), I got in on the ground floor as best I could and said, 'I've got a vested interest in this'.
"Before it got to the design phase I put together a group of people including volunteers to have a look at the Northern Mallee Pipeline and what we wanted done differently here.
We came up with new guidelines that water points should be nominally five kilometres apart - whether it be a hydrant or a water tank - and taking into account engineering issues and road corners."
Mr Russell said the new guidelines incorporated into the project give Wimmera firefighters access to water in regional areas at all hours, and "where we've never had it before". He said the Country Fire Authority had since adopted these standards statewide for water authorities carrying out infrastructure work.
Warracknabeal farmer Craig Henderson is diversifying his cropping operation with chicken sheds. He said he could not make the investment without the water security the pipeline provided.
"The reason I'm making this investment is to mitigate risk on the farm and create more constant cash flow," he said.
"If we didn't have water security, I couldn't take the risk on spending the money - because you can't guarantee the income, so you'd have a lot of capital not getting used if it was a channel system."
Mr Henderson has six of a total of eight chickens sheds built, and hopes to house 380,000 birds by the middle of next year.
He said the Wimmera was an ideal place for poultry given the distance between properties and associated biosecurity benefits, and the local supply of grains used in chicken feed.
"Continuity of water means farmers can keep running livestock on paddocks," he said. "When I tell people up in New South Wales they can't believe we've got such available water all over our farm."
Mr Henderson said the pipeline had an indirect impact on farmers' mental health also.
"To have a garden around your house coming home in the middle of a dry spell like the one last year and it's green, it's just much better for your state of mind," he said.
"You can get away from the drought mentally."
James Langlands, Concrete Plant manager at Conundrum Holdings, said the pipeline had kept its quarry at Mt Drummond near Stawell sustainable.
He said historically, the quarry drew its water from an onsite dam filled from captured rainfall. However increasingly unpredictable and unreliable rainfall put Conundrum's water reserves at risk.
"Without access to pipeline water, we'd be struggling to maintain volumes of water required", he said.
"High-quality, clean pipeline water is now available for material processing, while a combination of dam water and recycled processing water are used for dust suppression, substantially increasing the quarry's water efficiency."
Conundrum supplies councils and other builders with materials for road, rail and water industry infrastructure as well as concrete aggregates.
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